Call it a case of slow organizational reflexes. A company can see an opportunity to innovate or capture new customers and market share, but by the time resources are allocated and people with the right skills are put in place, the opportunity is gone. The organization simply cannot get out of its own way.
How to make it better?
Improving your organizational agility involves coordinated action across several fronts: how talent is sourced and deployed; how people are given the skills to meet a company’s needs both now and in the future; how HR matches capabilities with business goals; and how the ability to manage change is adopted more broadly across the organization.
In this podcast, the authors discuss ways in which companies respond too slowly to market changes, then dissect the actions companies can take to improve their organizational ability to respond more quickly.
The agile organization sources and deploys talent in ways different from its competitors. In hiring, these companies look beyond the narrow skills needed for particular jobs to find people with a portfolio of broader, related capabilities. They also screen for people who are, by nature, more adaptable and willing to embrace change.
Companies Accenture has studied, such as Entergy Corp. and Hilton Worldwide, focus on hiring employees who fit an “agility profile”—often generalists who can then fill in specific skills gaps with training. These points underscore the fact that the “tone” of organizational agility is set very early in the process of finding and developing talent.
Staffing and deployment also look very different with agile organizations. Rather than locking employees into long-term roles and then waiting for relevant work to arise, a more leading-edge approach is to assemble teams that are the right fit for a particular need—and then to disband and reassemble a different team for the next need.
The enterprise learning function is vitally important to the agile organization. It bears the primary responsibility for creating engaging, just-in-time learning experiences to improve productivity and over-all business performance. Equally important, it must be able to rapidly enable the development of new skills to support new strategic needs.
The challenge here is that many companies’ formal learning programs are too slow and too outmoded to improve the organizational reflex. What’s needed is a dual approach: providing formal learning that is timely and based on best practices so that broader sets of workforces get consistent, high-quality training; and at the same time, leveraging social learning and collaboration tools to connect all employees with the information they need, right now, to respond to a customer or develop a potential breakthrough idea.
The HR function of the agile organization acts less like a process administrator and more like an active participant in flexibly matching talent with need. If, as described earlier, teams with the right mix of capabilities are to be assembled for specific business needs, then some part of the organization must be responsible for knowing who has what capabilities. That’s the job of the new HR: understanding, at a detailed level, the knowledge, skills and abilities of the workforce, and then acting as a broker to match the right talent with the right business goals.
For example, Campbell Soup Co. uses a talent management system that documents an employee’s full range of skills and career aspirations—making it easier to identify personnel able to take on new roles. Employees can add new experiences regularly, keeping their profiles up to date. According to Jackie Scanlan, the company’s vice president—HR international and strategy, “The key is to proactively mine this data to really get to know employees beyond just their current role.”
The pace of change takes its toll on an organization. We spoke to a COO for a major telecommunications company who expressed concern about how much his people could take. “In the last five years, our company has been through two CEOs, two mergers and a new IT system launch,” he says. “Now we are being acquired.” The executive feels he can no longer tell people to “work hard until it gets back to normal.” That pace of change is normal.
Creating a more adaptable and collaborative culture is certainly part of the answer. But even more important is moving beyond traditional approaches to change management—which see change as a separate and discrete program with a beginning, a middle and an end—and instead creating a broader enterprise capability to be adaptable and agile all the time. The agile organization embraces the strategies and structures for constantly upgrading the change capabilities of leaders and the entire workforce.
One way to think about organizational agility is much like the way the head of a supply chain organization thinks about quality. Quality isn’t a matter of appointing someone to check your products, because by then it’s too late; rather, it’s a matter of embedding scrutiny and commitment into every step of the process.
Similarly, an agile organization looks across the multiple dimensions of talent, culture, organization structure and leadership, and embeds flexibility in each. It adds up to a workforce that can move closer to the speed of ideas and opportunities. The exemplars also put a premium on rich collaboration—which shouldn’t be confused with slow consensus-building. Truly effective collaboration involves the wide distribution and free flow of information, quick sharing of perspectives from across the organization, and rapid decision making that can, when needed, jump hierarchies in a single bound.
About the authors
Walter G. Gossage is the managing director responsible for change management offerings and capabilities within Accenture Talent & Organization. He is based in Dallas.
David Gartside is the managing director responsible for HR and talent management offerings and capabilities within Accenture Talent & Organization. He is based in New York.Victoria B. Luby
is a senior director in Accenture Talent & Organization, responsible for talent strategy offerings and capabilities. She is based in San Francisco.
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